Friday, December 19, 2008

Zhuangzi: Big and Useless -- and Not So Good at Catching Rats

[Cross-posted at Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog]

Okay, I've written about this before; but, to my enduring amazement, not everyone agrees with me. The orthodox interpretation of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) puts skillful activity near the center of Zhuangzi's value system. (The orthodoxy here includes Graham, Ivanhoe, Roth, and many others, including Velleman in a recent article I objected to in another connection.)

Here is one reason to be suspicious of this orthdoxy: Examples of skillful activity are rare in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of Zhuangzi's book. And the one place in the Inner Chapters where Zhuangzi does indisputably praise skillful activity is in an oddly truncated chapter, with a title and message ("caring for life") suggestive of the early, immature Zhuangzi (if one follows Graham in seeing Zhuangzi as originally a Yangist). Even the term "wu wei", often stressed in skill-based interpretations as indicating a kind of spontaneous responsiveness, only appears three times in the Inner Chapters, and never in a way that indisputably means anything other than literally "doing nothing".

Zhuangzi writes:

Maybe you've never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low -- untill it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there's the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn't know how to catch rats (Watson trans., Complete, p. 35).
On the one hand, we have the skill of the weasel, which Zhuangzi does not seem to be urging us to imitate; and on the other hand we have the yak who knows how to... how to do what? How to be big! It has no useful skills -- it cannot carve oxen, guide a boat, or carve a wheel -- and in this respect, Zhuangzi says it is like the "big and useless" trees that repeatedly occur in the text, earning Zhuangzi's praise. Zhuangzi continues:
Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? (ibid.)
That is the core of Zhuangzi, I submit -- not the skillful activity of craftsmen, but lazy, lounging bigness!

Where else does Zhuangzi talk about skill in the Inner Chapters? He describes the skill of a famous lute player, a music master, and Huizi the logician as "close to perfection", yet he calls the lute-playing "injury" and he says these three "ended in the foolishness of 'hard' and 'white' [i.e., meaningless logical distinctions]" (p. 41-42). Also: "When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks" (p. 60-61). He repeatedly praises amputees and "cripples" who appear to have no special skills. Although he praises abilities such as floating on the wind (p. 32) and entering water without getting wet (p. 77), these appear to be magical powers rather than perfections of skill, along the lines of having "skin like ice or snow" and being impervious to heat (p. 33); and its unclear the extent to which he seriously believes in such abilities.

How did the orthodox view arise, then? I suspect it's mostly due to overemphasizing the dubious Outer and Mixed Chapters and conflating Zhuangzi's view with that of the more famous "Daoist" Laozi (Lao Tzu). Since this happened early in the interpretive tradition, it has the additional force of inertia.


Stephen C. Walker said...

Some “working notes”:

1. It’s not required that we posit any particular core vision for any of these texts, given not only (a) the likelihood of multiple authorship but also (b) their genre conventions which amount to, in Zhuangzi’s case, a rather extreme degree of “stylistic particularism”. On (a), some posters here (I hope they’ll chime in) have advanced the view that the Inner Chapters are not as unified as is customarily thought, the implication I pick up being that if there is a core vision or impulse to “Zhuangzi’s” writing it must be sought more diffusely throughout the entire work. This task is immeasurably more time-consuming than focusing on just the easy seven chapters, and I have a slight suspicion that this is a big reason the orthodoxy has been so ready to confine itself to the Neipian and breathe a sigh of relief. On (b), even if we posit “unified authorial intent” of some kind in the Neipian, there’s nothing to prevent any author from exploring different views without himself settling on a synthesis. The ZZ text already preserves more evidence of such an intellectual practice than any other pre-Han text, as it in several notable instances toys with ideas before rejecting them.

2. There is a difference between activity we could characterize as “skillful” and the execution of particular skill-sets. Cook Ding is the only “virtuoso menial” in the Neipian, but it is hard to characterize the human ideal advanced throughout those chapters as anything but a “skillful” ideal. I’m sure this point could bear some debating. I think virtuoso menials in ZZ serve the purpose of illustrating not only a plausible model of what skillful action might be like, but also a plea for the intrinsic dignity (or at least immunity from denigration) of lowly and despised people and occupations–the sewer-cleaner could be a sage! etc. Here I’d ask the assembled whether they share my intuition that a butcher or craftsman is low enough in the social hierarchy of early China that singling him out as an exemplar of the highest excellences represents a bold if not shocking rhetorical move. In which case virtuoso menials join the ranks of puzzlingly charismatic ugly men and carefree amputees.

3. One idea that’s been simmering in my research lately is that there’s a long-standing and very strong tradition of reading PRACTICE into early Daoist texts, and that this reading is generally unjustified. It seems to me that there has been a certain anxiety over the silence of such texts as Zhuangzi and Laozi on concrete practical details of positive action, and of course religious instincts expect texts of sacred wisdom to advance some kind of repeatable, teachable program for the cultivation of virtue. It may be (hunch?) that no other body of “sacred/religious” writings has so consistently little to say about how to structure one’s living patterns, precisely because (thesis statement) *the* guiding impulse of those texts is to resist any such effort. I have become more and more friendly to the idea that if there is an “oceanic push” driving the Zhuangzi, Laozi etc. corpora, it is resistance to the very idea of a moral or otherwise aretaic training regimen. It seems to me that there is no position so broadly shared throughout these corpora than that “training yourself up” is the wrong thing to do with your life.

Now, to the extent that this resistance to “training yourself up” results in lassitude, stupidity, and irresponsibility, objections arise immediately. Defenders of the texts (which includes their own authors) must scramble to explain that their proposals don’t result in such dismal character flaws. And maybe they don’t…that’s exactly what keeps the debate alive. Suffice it to say that I’m more sympathetic than ever to Xunzi’s brief criticism of Zhuangzi as inadequately attentive to the specifically human; not only do many of the stories in the Neipian advocate things grossly immoral by conventional standards, but the authors recognize this, and part of the issue of “shared vocabulary” (empty, unified, still, etc.) between Zhuang and Xun involves their dispute over the best way to characterize “real” impartiality and “real” responsiveness. It seems to me that there has been inadequate attention to the possibility that the Zhuangzi is *not* a wise text, since admiration for the Neipian has become such a touchstone (since Graham and especially since Hansen) of the modern self-identity of Chinese philosophy experts.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the detailed comment, Stephen! See my reply over at Manyul's blog.

Anonymous said...

The way you unterstand zhuangzi's text is just like how majority western people think of the wastern philosophies, they find those ideas are useless when approach to daily life. I personally find Zhuangzi's text is useful because it provide me another "way" of looking at this world. You think its not useful only because you can not find a way to use it -- that is one of the central idea in the text. Please see thinks beyond the prejudice.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, but Zhuangzi is one of my favorite philosophers! If you want to take me to task for vapid prejudice, you might find better fuel in my posts on Laozi.